Lego – from amateurs to professionals

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I’ve been a fan of Michael Chabon’s writing since I read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay in 2003 on holiday in Sicily. (I’d sneak away from the post-dinner political arguments with the excuse of putting the girls to bed, then sit outside in the evening warmth devouring the pages.) His latest, Manhood for Amateurs, is an entertaining and recognition-prompting series of essays and portraits of different stages of the male life. No, there are no expeditions to forests in hair shirts and poor sanitation in order to unite with the Wild Man, but there are nice observations on the double gender standards of parenting: standing in a supermarket queue when holding a small child prompts the comment, “You are such a good dad.” Purely because said child wasn’t crying/blue in the face/killing people. Whereas it’s hard to imagine what a woman would have to do in a supermarket to prompt a similar comment…

A chapter on Lego, however, made me think of how we often work with new techniques and technologies. I’m not talking here about the vanilla Lego boxes (which seem to have all but disappeared) – the ones with a set ration of 4×2 pieces, 2×2 squares, a single basepiece, some long thin pieces and never enough roof pieces. Nor do I mean the scarily high-priced ones for grown-ups to make and display – a robotic dinosaur, a Ferrari or a Star Wars Cloud City. I’m talking about ones like the Police Truck and the castle Drawbridge.

First, we get the right equipment and the instructions and do it exactly the way some expert designed it. Then we take it apart and put it back in the toolbox. We may go back at some point and try to rebuild it, but when we can’t quite find the right parts we substitute with others that come to hand in the box. It can take a bit of experience and trial and error before we can see what works and doesn’t, but once we can see that something we originally thought essential isn’t, we can start to be creative. At which point, it’s like the spell is broken – what had been a right/wrong thing (i.e. there is only one way to build this) shifts to a rough framework around which we can improvise. (Try it with heads instead of battlements or with an unfeasible large chassis built out with standard blocks…) And from there it’s a small jump to taking the initial building blocks and creating something new – often starting with a simple structure and adapting/evolving as we go.

And in organisations, our experience can be similar. Some people, of course, stick to what they’ve been taught in the first place, never deviating. Others can adapt a little, tweaking here and there. And then some of us get creative once we’ve got some experience under our belt, freely extrapolating and building new tools and processes to meet new needs. And – like any good post-instruction Lego creation – starting from something concrete, but ending up somewhere not exactly unexpected, but getting there in an unpredictable fashion…

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